Non-Indo-European languages

Frances Karttunen karttu at
Mon Jan 20 12:54:05 UTC 2003

Ricardo has written impeccably about the linguistic history of the
Uto-Aztecan languages.  He is absolutely on target about the profound and
ancient divergence between the northern and southern branches of this

So what I have to add here is an additional thought and not in any way
contradictory to what Ricardo has said.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied both northern and southern Uto-Aztecan
languages and other non-Indo-European languages as well, warned against the
strictures of the Indo-European mindset.  Speakers of what might be called
"standard average European" (SAE) languages bring to the task of learning a
non-Indo-European language preconceptions about how languages work, and
these preconceptions may hinder their understanding of how other languages
work.  Learning ONE non-Indo-European language serves to dispel SAE
assumptions and open one to the greater possibilities across human

So someone who has learned some Nahuatl is probably better prepared to
approach Hopi than someone who speaks just Spanish and/or English.  But
someone like me who came to Nahuatl with a prior knowledge of Finnish (a
language utterly different from SAE languages) has about the same advantage.

Just having broken out of SAE is a help, but not all languages are equally
useful for learning other languages.  For instance, knowing Finnish has been
helpful for Nahuatl, and it also seems to be helpful for such completely
unrelated languages as Quechua, Turkish, and Korean.  But it doesn't bring
much useful to learning languages that make distinctive use of tone.   I've
had a vastly harder time with Yucatec Maya than with Nahuatl, but probably
someone who knows an Asian or African tone language would be better prepared
to learn Mayan languages and Chinantec, for instance.  So yes, learning some
Nahuatl would probably be more useful to acquiring Hopi than studying
Chinese, for instance.

That said, aside from the polyglot sort of linguist, most people don't have
the time and enthusiasm to learn one language in order to facilitate
learning another one.  In a sense, that's what makes the Andrews book about
Nahuatl so difficult.  Andrews sets out to dispel the SAE mindset by
teaching a meta-grammatical structure for Nahuatl which isn't universal
technical linguistic terminology, but something very particular to Andrews's
understanding of Nahuatl.  His belief is that learning this abstract
structure will facilitate accurate learning of classical Nahuatl, but for
most people it's equivalent to learning one really hard language in order to
learn another very hard language.  Who has the time and determination?  It's
discouraging.  For me Andrews is an invaluable reference work but not a
language-learning aid, even though that is what Andrews intends it to be.

One thing about the Andrews book though.  It takes us beyond Garibay's and
Thelma Sullivan's introductions to Nahuatl by insisting on an understanding
of Nahuatl phonology and morphology on its own terms and not through the
obscuring curtain of the imperfect orthography that was devised in the 16th
century.  This isn't just a matter of pronunciation.  By confusing the
language with the orthography Garibay and Sullivan (and for that matter
Simeon in his etymologies too) wander into error and miss generalities that
make the language easier to grasp.

For a couple of reasons the 16th- and 17th-century dictionaries and grammars
of Mesoamerican languages are generally superior to ones written later.  One
is that the friars who compiled them did so from total immersion in the
community of speakers of the languages about which they wrote.  Another,
specific to the Jesuit grammarians, is that they came from an academic
tradition that involved study of Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and other non-SAE
languages as well as Latin.

Acquiring Nahuatl involves setting aside SAE ideas about how singular and
plural work; paying attention to such distinctions as animate/inanimate,
human/nonhuman, specific/nonspecific, transitive/intransitive; and putting
up with ambiguity about who did what to whom.  It's an exercise in futility
to produce things in English or Spanish and seek to translate them directly
into Nahuatl.  The same would be true for Hopi with its very different
approach to space and time. My head spins when I contemplate the prospect of
translating anything from non-native Nahuatl to non-native Hopi!

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